Constable Jeremy Falle started wearing a bullet-resistant vest while working on armored trucks in 1996. He continued wearing a vest after he became an officer with Canada's Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in 2002.
While OPP has mandated soft body armor for uniformed officers since 1994, Falle hasn't needed a policy to encourage him to wear his vest. He's always known wearing a vest under his crisp uniform is about safety.
"You just wear it like you would a seat belt in a cruiser," he says.
June 9, 2008, was just another day Falle wore his vest. It was also the day that his vest saved his life. Falle responded to a domestic dispute call at a home where a 28-year-old man was experiencing mental health problems. The man's parents had contacted the police when they observed their agitated son with two bottles filled with gasoline, a lighter and a hatchet. Falle, along with his sergeant, entered the residence using a front door key obtained from the suspect's father. Falle held a pistol at high cover and his sergeant held a conducted energy weapon.
Seeing the officers, the suspect threw an improvised incendiary device. The ensuing flashover and explosion caused the front door to slam shut, trapping the officers in a hallway. Flames ignited a substance on the floor and surrounded the officers.
Falle felt the fire, estimated to be 4 feet high, burn his legs, arms and face -- but not his entire body.
"I thought, 'keep going,'" he recalls.
He used his pistol to shoot out the front door's glass pane and exited the inferno, followed by his sergeant.
Falle suffered burns with varying degrees of severity on 36 percent of his body, from his neck up, from his mid-thigh down, and from his wrists to his shoulders.
His hands were protected, and he was able to shoot a gun, because he was wearing his department-issued Kevlar-lined gloves, as he always does on calls.
Suffering massive burns, both officers were hospitalized for a considerable period of time, then continued recovery at home.
Both Falle and his sergeant credit the thermal protection afforded by body armor as instrumental in their survival. Falle says his entire torso area covered by his vest was saved from burns.
During his IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club induction, Falle guesses his 2-minute speech was closer to 10 minutes. Since 2008, he has a lot to say about bullet-resistant vests.
"Everyone trains and mentally prepares for a gunfight at some time in their career," he says. "But how many prepare for a mentally deranged male throwing a Molotov cocktail into the hallway they're standing in? I never thought that would happen. These incidents happen in the blink of an eye, and we have only seconds to process and react. Police trainers teach us to win at all costs. Vests give us a mental and physical barrier to carry out that training."
While there are officers who, like Falle, faithfully wear their soft body armor, there are officers who do not. How many consistently wear their body armor is uncertain -- one estimate says about 60 percent. There are U.S. law enforcement agencies that encourage vest wear by mandating it and funding vests for their officers, and there are agencies that do neither. For all, there's one reality: Body armor can only protect law enforcement officers when it's worn. How can more officers be encouraged to wear body armor?
Body armor works
Approximately 3,100 recorded saves in the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club prove body armor works. Those are not the only saves that can be credited to body armor, but they're the saves recorded since the International Association of Chiefs of Police and DuPont in 1987 started a club to record ballistic and non-ballistic incidents in which survivors were wearing body armor.
Two additional examples from the Survivors' Club show how body armor is protecting officers today: